Ever since Edward Snowden handed thousands of National Security Agency documents over to filmmaker Laura Poitras and writer Glenn Greenwald in a Hong Kong hotel room, the NSA’s mass surveillance of domestic phone calls and Internet traffic has been widely compared to the abuses of East Germany’s secret police, the Stasi.
The communist republic may have imploded in 1989, but it has nonetheless become synonymous with a smothering, all-knowing spy apparatus.
A year ago, President Obama cited East Germany as a “cautionary tale of what could happen when vast, unchecked surveillance turned citizens into informers and persecuted people for what they said in the privacy of their own homes.” He was responding to accusations that just such a vast, unchecked effort to collect data has metastasized on his watch.
It was no coincidence that Poitras chose Leipzig, a city in the heart of the former East Germany, for the recent German debut of her documentary, Citizenfour, about Snowden and the NSA. “If the government is doing that kind of surveillance, it has a corrosive effect on democracy and society,” Poitras said after the premiere. “People who lived through it can tell you what it was like.”
Indeed. When it was revealed that the NSA had been listening to her cellphone calls, German Chancellor Angela Merkel—who came of age in communist East Germany, under the Stasi’s watchful eye—told President Obama, “This is just like the Stasi.” In an interview last year, NSA whistle-blower and Poitras source William Binney likened the agency to “the Stasi on supersteroids.”
They’re wrong. In crucial ways, the two agencies are very different. In its effort to control East Germany, the Stasi made its presence felt in every sphere of life. Its power rested not only in the information its surveillance yielded, but in the fear and distrust that collection instilled. The NSA, on the other hand, operates best in the dark, its targets unaware of its existence, let alone its dragnet data-gathering. Even Poitras, when asked, acknowledged a line between the two. “The NSA’s broad, mass collection is fundamentally different than what the Stasi did,” she said in Leipzig.
Calling the Stasi “secret police” is misleading. The name is an abbreviation of Statatssicherheit, or state security. Founded in 1950 as the East German Communist Party’s “sword and shield,” it never hid the fact that it was spying. By the late 1980s, more than 260,000 East Germans—1.6 percent of all adults in the country—worked for the organization, either as agents or as informants. (If the NSA employed as many analysts to spy on 320 million Americans, it would have 5 million people on the payroll.) It wanted you to constantly wonder which of your friends was an informant and, ideally, tempt or pressure you into the role of snitch too.
At times, the scrutiny reached absurd proportions. Every apartment building and workplace had a designated informer. Spies used specially built equipment to steam open mail; a Division of Garbage Analysis was on the lookout for suspect trash. Stasi agents let the air out of targets’ bicycle tires and rearranged the pictures in their apartments in an effort to drive “class enemies” crazy.
Cooperation was often a prerequisite for career advancement, academic success, even a new apartment. The Stasi had the power to take your children away or keep you from getting into a university. Its visibility and ubiquity forced East Germans to make moral choices every day: Collaborate with an unjust, undemocratic system or suffer the consequences.
The NSA is a different beast. Until Snowden’s revelations, it was one of the best-funded, most powerful agencies that most Americans had never heard of. In contrast to the sexier CIA, the NSA—founded in 1952 in part to break foreign codes—preferred invisibility.
After the attacks of 9/11, a national security apparatus hungry for information and a Congress reluctant to push for oversight allowed the agency to metastasize into a monster, fed by more than $10 billion annually, largely out of the public eye. Few people felt or suspected its presence: Two years ago, an American complaining about NSA surveillance would have been dismissed as paranoid.
Yet even after Snowden revealed how the NSA had penetrated American phone and electronic communications, the public reaction was more bored yawn than outraged howl. Because the agency operates so deep in the shadows, the average citizen can claim ignorance of—and feel no responsibility for—the NSA’s activities. As Paul R. La Monica put it in a CNN Money column, “I have nothing to hide. I’m not a terrorist.”
The agencies’ technological capabilities differed too. The Stasi’s files—sometimes running to tens of thousands of pages on longtime dissidents—occupied 69 miles of physical shelf space. Despite the huge outlay of resources and energy, today much of the information gleaned from its giant network seems trivial: political leanings, sexual preferences, religious convictions, music tastes. Most people post as much on their Facebook page nowadays.
To sort and track everything, East Germany’s superspies relied on 40 million file cards and computer databases. Searches were made by hand, or with locally sourced Robotron computers the size of desks and years behind their Western equivalents. By the late ’80s, the collapsing East German economy forced the agency to recycle confiscated rock music cassette tapes to record tapped phone calls.
On the other hand, what we’ve learned about the NSA’s technological prowess boggles the mind. It has taken the agency just a decade to collect an estimated billion times as much data as the Stasi amassed in nearly half a century—potentially 5 zettabytes, or 5 billion terabytes. According to one leaked document, by 2006 the NSA was sucking up “one Library of Congress every 14.4 seconds.” Trillions of domestic call logs, hundreds of billions of cellphone location records, and untold billions of pages of web data give it access to even the most out-of-the-way corners of our increasingly digital lives.
To make sense of it all, the NSA reportedly has the 21st-century’s fastest computers at its disposal. Snowden’s leaks show it’s able to sift through billions of data points and link scraps of seemingly trivial information to establish patterns of behavior and association. Its algorithms and extensive databases make the NSA far more effective than the Stasi ever dreamed of being.
That’s why the comparison is so treacherous. It diminishes the horror of the Stasi’s targeted oppression while downplaying the threat posed to our democracy by the NSA’s secretive surveillance. The NSA’s tactics and techniques may not be anything like the Stasi’s—yet. But its invisibility, technological expertise, and lack of oversight make it dangerous in a different way.
Right now the NSA’s domestic surveillance is indiscriminate and, we’re told, aimed solely at preventing another 9/11. But how do we know? And what guarantees that it will stay that way? To what end is all this data being collected, and how might it be used against us in the future? It’s clear that not even Congress knows the answers—and that’s scary.
With that much information at hand, the potential for abuse increases. If someone in power wanted to target and pressure Americans it saw as political enemies, the NSA’s digital storehouses of personal information would be a terrifyingly effective tool. Anyone who argues that only criminals have to fear the police and only terrorists have cause to encrypt their emails would do well to look back to Richard Nixon’s Enemies List or J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, which used data on the sex lives of American politicians and civil rights activists to twist arms and end careers.
Omnipresent, if not omniscient, the Stasi was one of the most hated institutions in East Germany. In the end it was also one of the first to be swept away when the revolution came. Just days after the Berlin Wall fell, protesters peacefully occupied Stasi offices across the country, often catching agents in the midst of shredding and burning mountains of incriminating paper.
Twenty-five years later, Germany is one of the most privacy-obsessed countries on earth, thanks in no small part to the memory of the Stasi’s abuses. There was no role for Stasi tactics in the reunited German democracy. It’s up to us to make sure the NSA can never threaten ours.
More from Wired: